Anita van de Vliet takes her seat for a training drama in which novice NatWest corporate account execs meet a real-life finance director.
Complaints from businessmen that their bankers don't understand them are almost as common as the equivalent lament from husbands about their wives. But while one seldom hears of wives doing much to correct this regrettable failing, the better banks are now taking the matter rather more seriously - none more so, it claims, than National Westminster Bank, which has evolved a novel educational device for the purpose. NatWest's innovative training event, a model of customer orientation, pitches real-life finance directors from real companies into role play exercises with the bank's corporate account executives as part of a programme in which tender trainees confront the tough realities of business life.
Picture the scene. We are at Heythrop Park, a place of baronial splendours, darkling woodlands and rolling acres of Cotswold land, formerly a Jesuit college but now home to the NatWest staff training college. Hither, as to a 'retreat', as courses manager Bill Spinner puts it, have come eight newly-appointed corporate account executives (CAEs) and their 16 support staff for a two-week course on 'mid-corporate relationship management'. These latter-day novices have spent the first week of their stay 'refreshing' their technical skills, both financial and non-financial - learning the tricks of reading customer body language, tactics of cross-selling and team-building techniques (or at any rate, learning how to conduct an interview in partnership with an assistant without hogging the entire show).
The fledgling corporate account executives hail from the bank's regional corporate centres, rather than from high street branches as of yore. In real life, Spinner explains, their work will be peripatetic - visiting corporate customers in their local habitat to build relationships based on a genuine understanding of the business, so that when the time comes for lending for expansion or for acquisition finance, they can propose realistic solutions and drum up (sound) business for the bank. Rather than mastering the details of how a business is run in all their minutiae, account executives must understand the competitive forces facing a customer's company, how it fits into its sector, and the economic and environmental concerns that affect it. 'We advise them not to over-prepare,' he says, (lest they get bogged down in the administrative intricacies of a business and lose sight of the essentials - like its ability to generate cash). They are also expected to act as consultants, ready to steer the customer away from potentially perilous business waters. To do that, they need an authoritative voice. 'Finance directors want somebody prepared to make decisions, not someone who hides behind remote central controls.' Customers are from the mid-corporate range - companies with a turnover of between £1 million and £30 million, although in practice the figure can be as high as £500 million. This is an important (and highly competitive) market for Nat West. 'As some of these companies prosper, they will have ever-increasing needs,' says Spinner; and as the subject of takeovers, for example, they can be involved in quite large transactions. It is from a selection of these companies - a selection based, crucially, on having successfully weathered the recession - that 88 finance directors per annum travel up to Heythrop Park to take part in the educational performance we are about to witness. The scenario, as explained to them over a sumptuous dinner the evening before, is that they will act as existing customers (which, of course, they are) meeting a new corporate account executive, who is anxious to ensure a 'seamless handover' from his abruptly departed predecessor. Only this element of the story-line is fictional; the rest of the hour's interview with the corporate executive and assistant will be based on the facts.
The customer-friendly trainees, for their part, have prepared themselves for the encounter by carefully scrutinising the bank's files on the company and availing themselves of whatever other research assistance they deem necessary. 'They had a first rush on Tuesday,' says Spinner, shifting with ease from business jargon to cinema argot, 'when they met with the first batch of finance directors.' Today is Thursday; the rehearsals are over; and the forthcoming event is the 'highlight of their course'.
On, now, to the observer room, where colleagues and tutors are seated to watch the interview (transmitted live) on video, equipped with structured feedback sheets on which to record their comments. These list such items as the 'use of business cards' and 'ice breakers'; whether the corporate executive creates an impression of professionalism and confidence; the thoroughness of the research, and whether it is used to probe or to show off; who controlled the conversation, and whether the account executive and his assistant worked as a pair.
The drama begins. Playing himself as finance director is the blue-eyed and bearded Roger Aust from Bowen and Court, printers and stationers based in Beckenham, Kent; his supposed guests from NatWest are account executive Dave Cox and assistant Steve Russell. The opening pleasantries over, the youthful Cox hones straight in on the perceived oddity of the phalanx of directors at Bowen and Court, in excess of what a company this size might warrant. 'There's a whole raft of people at the top,' he says. 'What exactly are they doing?' (A slight intake of breath among the observers suggests this approach is winning full marks for accuracy but zero for diplomacy). But Aust himself is unabashed. In this family company, he says frankly, a percentage of the 'directors' are wives with but one share apiece, and who are directors in name only. That leaves six genuine directors but, as he says, 'It is arguable in a company our size what being a director really means.' This theme recurs with variations in the course of the interview; and later in the morning, at the open forum, Aust will comment that Dave Cox had put his finger on the crucial questions facing the company, praising him for digging beneath the surface of the balance sheet. Now, however, an enquiry from Russell about the history of the company evokes a compelling tale from the bright-eyed Aust; and, like Coleridge's Wedding Guest faced with the Ancient Mariner, the two young bankers cannot choose but hear.
Bowen and Court has 'struggled on for half a century now, and has seen some dramatic changes along the way', he begins. (Dave and Steve nod as sagely as youth permits.) Originally a printing company based in London, it relocated in the early 1970s to Beckenham, to a splendidly expansive 60,000 square feet, with all the space devoted entirely to printing. 'But the 1970s recession in printing hit almost the moment the company moved,' he recounts. Technology was changing; and printing was still in the grip of the unions. The only way out was to 'chuck out all the lithopress'. With it went 'chaps who had been with us all their lives'.
'It left a scar on the lives of my father and Ivan (the other main family director),' he says. (Steve and Dave sit bolt upright, listening intently. The observers do likewise and make approving notes under the 'body language' heading on their score sheets). 'It has made them very cautious businessmen,' Aust continues. 'At the end of the 1980s, when everybody was shaking the money tree, we fortunately weren't ... That break in the '70s has coloured the business, and always will, just as the difficulties of the last few years will colour the attitudes of businesses that have suffered.' Bowen and Court's core business now, he continues, getting into his narrative stride, is as manufacturing stationer. Its printing expertise is sold direct (through mail order), and the accounts won this way provide potential customers for a wider range of office stationery. 'From our point of view,' he tells his bankers, whose role seems to have modulated from that of interlocutors to sympathetic audience but who are alertly waiting their chance to butt in,'we would like to come into a room like this and sell you everything in it.' His narrative stride lengthens to a gallop. Asked about the current state of the equipment he waxes lyrical on the 'nice little circle' of printing presses and guillotine punching and wrapping, all compressed into just 3,000sq.ft. In answer to Russell's enquiry about the company's products, he expounds on the 'beauty' of manufacturing accountants' analysis pads, since 'even a one-man band will use 50 pads a year'. However, Cox's suggestion that Bowen and Court's customers depend on the company - 'You have the power: they have to come to you?' - evokes a sharp rebuttal. 'Commercial stationery at the moment is dire,' he says. 'It is a totally universal product, so you have to rely on giving a better service, on the fact that customers like you: we will never beat anyone on price.' Here Dave Cox manages to get in another word or two, remarking, 'We're in the same position as you' or, as the irrepressible Aust puts it, 'Banking is like printing: people are chary of changing their bank or printers, unless they're really upset about something. But we have to stop our clients from even going to see other people. We must keep them happy.' At last Cox sees his chance and enquires, pertinently, after the company's expenditure on new machinery - and asks even more pertinently, how the company will generate the cash to finance such expenditure, which Aust recognises will be essential over the next few years. Cox even manages to slip in a reference to NatWest's Lombard leasing finance operation. And then, adroitly, he links his questions to the earlier theme of the superabundance of directors.
Aust takes the point, only too well. 'On the one hand, you have the directors, of different ages, who want different things; and on the other, there's the company, which needs investment ... Trying to balance all that is difficult. Probably, in the past, we have driven expensive cars when we should have been putting money back in investment,' he acknowledges, but then adds, with refreshing realism, 'But I don't go to work to edify myself. It's about earning me a living and a lifestyle - pathetic as that is at the moment.' At this point, the interview reaches its dramatic and commercial climax. Says Aust: 'Like all companies, I would value somebody looking at us and saying, "You can't afford all this - you must reinvest if you want to be here in 10 years' time." I have tried but I haven't found the right man.' To which Dave Cox responds in ringing tones, 'I am that man' - and, the hour up, the tutor switches off the video.
For Aust and his two bankers, there follows an off-camera debriefing, the contents of which remain secret to Cox and Russell. This is an unusual opportunity to extract this sort of honest commentary in a 'non-threatening environment', remarks courses manager Spinner. For the observers, there follows a critical analysis of the interview, in which Cox wins praise for his research, for listening, for pulling Aust back to the ostensible agenda (not an easy task with such a 'talker', the tutor comments) and for sitting up straight where, in his Tuesday performance, he had slouched. These observations, and suggested 'development opportunities' (as 'weaknesses' are rightly known in modern training circles) will be pointed out to Cox and Russell later, with the video as evidence. They will agree (how could they not?) that a tighter agenda and a more watchful eye on the clock would have strengthened the interview, although they also feel that Aust was hard to rein back. For one observer at least, it must be admitted that Aust stole the show, as he does again, unintentionally, at the open forum of finance directors and NatWest staff which draws the morning to a close, with his lively comments on the nature of 'relationship banking' - 'I changed from the Midland Bank because I didn't get on with the guy there' - and on 'innovative thinking - a product in short supply in business', which corporate account executives could provide. 'I get excited at the thought that an executive could come in and tear your balance sheet apart and make you sing,' he says, issuing an invitation for the time when reality replaces role play and training makes way for the real world.